Opinion: Corrupt practices and Shell companies

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Gambia should now be set to move forward the anti-corruption bill that would make it harder for shell companies, criminals, terrorists, public officials and the private sector to anonymously launder money through any of the thirteen banks currently operating in The Gambia, numerous Forex bureau and or the Central Bank of The Gambia.

The outcome of Janneh Commission even though not adequately disseminated to the public, share some light on how former President Yahya Jammeh used shell companies in the form of close associates to conduct spoilage of the Gambia economy. The co-conspirators of Jammeh’s plundering of Gambia’s resources are alleged to have siphoned more than a billion United states dollars in pension funds, foreign aid, in a multiple case of misappropriation and misrepresentation of state interest.

Recently a report emerged from a reputable anti-corruption investigation and reporting agency – The organize crime and Corruption reporting Project(OCCRP) - that names the former President as having benefited of a Taiwanese assistance totaling 3, 000, 000 United States dollars. Jammeh later, was to have used the money, to trade in arms and ammunitions supplied by a Taiwanese arms manufacturer. Some of these dangerous weapons ended up in the hands of former Sudanese ruler Omar al-Bashir. It is not far-fetched to guess the extent of destruction that these weapons brought to the people of Darfur and other places in Sudan.

The former President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh had used shell companies effectively to import several luxurious cars to the value of 400,000 United States dollars, money that had also come from the Taiwanese government agency.

President Adama Barrow’s administration should set up Gambia Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate the manner in which, 100 million-dollar financial contributions from the Taiwan government to the Gambia over a period of nineteen years was used and make a full report of its finding public at least before the next presidential elections.

Here too, shell companies have enabled grand corruption in The Gambia. The looting of Gambia resources had been made possible by the inconsistencies in national risk management and compliance efforts that are nowhere near international standards or good practice.

The anti-corruption legislation must be enacted sooner than later. This may prove to be the national life blood to sustain gains in the fight against corruption. Another option if anti-corruption commission proves unsustainable, is to strengthen the criminal code in particular laying emphasis on fighting corruption and corrupt practices in the Gambia by incorporating the entire United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) provisions and mechanisms into our legal system.

It is increasingly common to see the use of anonymous companies to enable corruption in The Gambia. Almost every corruption scandal reported by the Janneh Commission has included actions taken by anonymous companies or an insider. All public officials or private individuals or groups need to move their illicitly obtained wealth to avoid scrutiny and they do so by opening companies in places where it is possible to hide the real owners, so-called anonymous shell companies. Given this widespread problem, collecting data on every person resident in The Gambia and reducing face-to-face contact is key to reducing opportunities for corruption and building strong risk management in public and private sector.

Ignoring the problem that anonymous companies pose allows individuals to easily move their illicit funds and let’s corruption flourish. We as a nation and as citizens have a responsibility to tackle corruption because of its devastating impact on human rights, development and Gambia national security. The Gambia should recognize the strong link between corruption and national security. This link exists because corruption is inherently destabilizing. It perpetuates weak governance and institutions, which allow extremist ideologies to thrive. In this atmosphere, democracy and the rule of law cannot be effective.

The problems associated with anonymous companies do not only threaten the governments and national institutions. Anonymous companies provide the veil necessary to obfuscate identities of persons resident in The Gambia, or abroad plus public officials who engage in money laundering, which directly challenges Gambia’s fragile economy.  The recent partial released Janneh Commission report that had examine the business dealings of former President Yahya Jammeh and his close associates contains several references to anonymous/shell companies including shell companies associated with Hezbollah terrorist group.

Some assets of the former president have been seized and auctioned. Details of adverse findings against close associates of the former president is not made public yet. But the general population is watching with eagle eyes for perpetrators to be arrested and prosecuted according to the laws of The Gambia. The public is of the view that the Janneh Commission report will not be doctored thereby rendering its importance faulty.

In an ironic twist, it is observed that public officials may be using a shell company registered in the names of their patrons or cronies to earn some money from procurement or other dealings by engaging in insider trading. Prosecutors cannot tell if Gambia legislation is sufficient enough to tackle illicit enrichment, ensure that the freezing, seizure or confiscation measures are also applied to proceeds of crime that have been transformed or converted into other property.

The Gambia cannot afford to continually suffer from years of inaction on legislation to promote transparency of ultimate decency in public and private sectors but there is increased momentum building for the ultimate enactment of the Gambia Anti-Corruption Bill. It would be appropriate for President Adama Barrow’s administration to intensify its efforts in collection of data on each person resident in The Gambia, establish an anti-corruption agency that would consist of public officials, private sector and civil society organisations. Putin place adequate legislation to support more transparency of anonymous companies or donations. So does law enforcement plus an effective compliance regime.

Encouragingly, The Gambia has an Anti-Corruption Commission Act 2012, a draft Anti-Corruption Bill 2016 and a criminal code that should contain the entire measures and procedure that come with the UNCAC. These need to be taken as the national legislative proposals to tackle corruption in public and private sector.

The draft Anti-Corruption Bill even though had been validated twice require additional scrutiny of the bill by all stakeholders which will require representation of civil societies and the Financial Intelligence Unit which, hereto had not been consulted as principal government agency tasked with collection of and conduct complex money laundering investigations as well as civil society organizations being an oversight group. Any anti-corruption initiative taken by the government would require bipartisan support for effective and efficient implementation.

It is shocking that the managers at the Ministry of Justice do not see the need to act now. Anonymity of shell companies must end with immediate enactment of the anti-corruption Bill that should incorporate all the issues raised in the first cycle UNCAC review process plus the entire best practices outlined in the UNCAC among other anti-corruption mechanisms.

By: Michael O. Davies is the Secretary of Anti-Corruption Coalition (Gambia)